There will be no rank speculation here.
There is a power vacuum in Knoxville, a hole to fill, a big decision to be made by University of Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart.
Now that Hart has fired Derek Dooley after three disappointing years on The Hill — capped by the worst Vol loss to Vanderbilt in nearly 60 years — it is his lot to find the next man to stalk the sidelines at Neyland Stadium.
No one knows what lurks in the mind of Hart, and guessing is just that. It’s great fodder for talk radio, predicting how the dominos will fall.
But, unlike similar decisions made by similar men in years past, the decision has hardly the juice it once had.
In Tennessee, indeed in the South at large, coaching hires have been wrapped in legend. General Neyland came to Tennessee with a charge to even the series with Vanderbilt — not a bad place to start, by the way, for Hart in the current climate. Bear Bryant left Texas A&M for Alabama because “Mama called.” So much palace intrigue surrounded Phil Fulmer’s replacement of Johnny Majors that the Borgias would blush.
And maybe, decades from now, the winter of 2012 will be viewed with the same reverence, and the same apocrypha will creep up.
But for now? It’s all so much noise — but considerably less noise than usual.
In part, this is due to the weariness UT fans feel about their team. It’s on a string of mediocrity not seen in decades. There was no gnashing or screaming when Dooley got the hook — indeed the collective sighs of, “Finally,” were the same as they would have been had he been let go in August.
People only have so much to give. When Fulmer replaced Majors, UT football was The Big Thing in the state. In the meantime, we’ve added professional sports, and Nashville’s become a more cosmopolitan place generally. While the city once bled orange — with scattered black-and-gold leukocytes — we are now a rainbow, with shades of Titans blue, Bama crimson, and (probably) whatever color Oregon is wearing this week. There is, no doubt, a mass of Big Orange faithful; it’s just they have to rub elbows — and share column inches — with dozens of other teams.
And often, the excitement of picking a new coach is stoked when the feeling is a new coach could lead the team to unknown heights. Vanderbilt’s James Franklin hit the ground running with a verve never before witnessed on West End, jump-starting a fan base so known for its collective sense of impending doom it had its own acronym — the whispered “SOV” punctuated by a knowing shake of the head. Franklin convinced his team and their fans it would be different, and so it is. Any early concerns were swept away in his contagious enthusiasm.
It’d be tough to find a UT fan who will see the next coach as an immediate savior who will propel the team from losing record to SEC contender in a single season. Just righting the ship — and getting back above the Commodores on the SEC East ladder — would be enough. They need a fixer, and they know it, but fixers don’t raise the heart rate.
So when Hart breaks the news, there will be headlines — front-page, more than likely — but there won’t be a head rush. Not in Nashville. Not like it used to be.